The Melody of Silence

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Chapter 6 - Alex

My stupid car hummed a happy song the whole drive home. Of course she did. She’d had Nate’s hands all over her for three days straight. I’d probably be purring too if I was her.

“Shut the fuck up,” I scolded myself, smacking the steering wheel with my palm. Lately my brain had been one big clusterfuck of shit that, parsed out and compartmentalized, made perfect sense. What didn’t make sense was how all those conflicting thoughts and feelings seemed to come together into a painful morass that threatened either to bury me or tear me apart.

See, on the one hand, I hated him. Really, truly hated him. I think the really shitty memories don’t really fade. You just learn to keep them away from center stage. Drag those bad boys into the spotlight, though, and they’re just as painful as they were the day they were formed. Seeing Nate brought those memories back to front and center. Knowing that he went home, every night, to a child he fathered with a girl he had sex with while we were dating? It destroyed me.

Then there was the animal part of me. The bitch-in-heat part of me. Nate had never been unattractive. He was a cute kid back when he was scrawny and unkempt. He was a casual, aloof kind of hot back when he was a troublemaking teenager. Now, though? Now he was a deadly, dangerous flavor of handsome. The mere sight of him had me weak in the knees and damp between the legs and that just pissed me off all the more. What right did he have to put thoughts of deviant sex in strange places into my perverted mind? Honestly. The gall of the man.

At the end of the day, though, I could forgive my body. After all, my uterus was ever on the prowl for viable sperm donors and Nate was a fine physical specimen. Then there was my stupid, irrational soul. What excuse did it have? Nate was poison to the soul. He’d proven that. He’d muddied me up and rent me apart, and the scars he’d inflicted were only just now beginning to fade.

Why the fuck, then, did my stupid naive heart weep every time I met his eye? Why did it grab every cell in my body and hold me hostage while it lingered in his gaze, searching and diagnosing and yearning to reach out and wrap itself around him? Why did it have to notice the flicker of pain that passed over his face when I said things I had every right to say? Why did it have to wonder about the shadows under his eyes and worry that he wasn’t getting enough sleep? Why was it screaming at me to upend my whole existence, sacrifice everything good I had built, read his stupid letters, and let him pull me back in?

You wonder why so many battered spouses forgive their partners for the unforgivable? That’s part of it, I think. It’s that soul-deep love that makes you ignore the obvious logic and glom on to the memory of the person you once loved. Even if that person is buried in change and the only recognizable traits are physical.

As complex as they were, all the pieces of what I was feeling made sense. Unfortunately, the emotions didn’t come to me in manageable pieces. They came at me all at once. Love and hate, fear and lust, anger and guilt. My brain shorted out when I was around him and I hated him even more for that. For six years I had been completely in control of every aspect of my life. Now, nothing made sense anymore. I felt myself losing ground, slipping back to a place where I made decisions based on emotions rather than logic.

For example, I should have been happy that he promised to stay away. I thought that was what I wanted. But as I pulled out of the garage’s parking lot my eyes threatened to spill over and I had to crank the music up to distract myself from the awful emptiness in my chest. I should have felt relief that such an ugly chapter of my life was finally, finally over. Instead I had to fight the urge to execute an illegal u-turn in the middle of the street, run back, and apologize.

Apologize for what? For loving him enough to trust him, even when he proved, time after time, that he didn’t trust me? For having the strength to walk away after he lied to me one too many times? For feeling betrayed when he slept with another girl? For being afraid of him after he took a man’s life with his bare hands?

When I reached a stoplight, I pulled out my phone and pulled up Gemma’s number.

I have had a fucking DAY. Do you and Lacey wanna come over for dinner tonight?

I was pulling into my driveway when my phone dinged, alerting me to Gemma’s reply.

Let’s do tomorrow instead?

Odd. Gemma was almost painfully effusive and extroverted, so it was rare that she decline an invitation to hang out and even rarer that she do so without sending a follow on explanation, detailing her reasons and apologizing profusely.

You okay? I texted as I slung my overlarge purse over my shoulder and nudged the car door shut with a foot.

I’m fine, I received as shoved my key into the lock on the front door.

She wasn’t. Something felt off. I needed to pry further, but all thoughts of Gemma were chased from my mind when I shut the door behind me and was immediately caught up in a giant hug. My feet left the floor, the breath was squeezed out of me, and I sputtered as a shower of kisses rained down on my face.

“Parker, what the fuck?” I exclaimed, wrapping my arms around his neck and returning his kisses when the shock wore off and I realized who was attacking me.

“Surprised?” he asked, his mouth splitting into a wide, white grin as he set me back down and made a show of straightening my shirt for me.

"Yeah, I’m surprised!” I reached out and nudged him in the shoulder. “You told me you were gonna have to miss this weekend!”

He’d called two days prior, begging off his weekend visit. He said he had been inundated with homework and needed time to himself. I’d been disappointed, but I wasn’t angry. He did, after all, fly halfway across the country every few weeks to visit me. That was far more than anyone should ask.

Perhaps my disappointment over his raincheck had contributed to my confused response to Nate. Now that I had Parker present in my arms, the exchange at the auto shop seemed a million years and half a world away. Overcome by relief that some of my craziness could be explained and soothed away, I rose up onto my tiptoes and pressed another kiss to Parker’s perpetually-smiling mouth.

“Thank you for coming,” I whispered in his ear.

“If you think that’s the last of the surprises, you are sorely mistaken,” he said, his hands moving up from my hips to my sides, tickling until I broke away, shoving him back playfully.

“What else do you have planned?” I asked, curious.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” he said. “Now go get your smelly butt in the shower. We have dinner reservations for 6 o’clock.”

I glanced at my watch. It was already 4:30. I felt a flash of unjust irritation. My relationship with Parker had always been sunny, but it was also always just this side of frantic. He had a kind of energy that I was never quite able to match. We were always out and about. Touring museums, eating bizarre foods at expensive restaurants, watching indie films in converted warehouse theaters, leaping about in rabid crowds at concerts... We never just sat still, and I was never part of the planning process. I got dragged by the hand from one experience to the next.

“Okay,” I said, trying to conceal my annoyance. I knew that once I got in the shower and washed away the lingering memories of the day, I would be fine. I loved Parker. His exuberance and zeal were my favorite qualities about him. Agitation was natural, given the disparity in our personalities, but it didn’t spell doom for our relationship. In the end, I posited to myself, it would make us stronger.

Sure enough, by the time I finished showering I had all but forgotten my negative feelings and was completely consumed in preparing for our date. Parker made me happy and I wanted to make him happy too.

Nagging, cautious excitement about what Parker was planning had me digging into the back of my closet. There, I found my first ever “little black dress” and pulled it out, holding it up, checking for wrinkles or stains. I hadn’t worn the damn thing in years, having had no occasion that merited such elegance.

I slipped into it, relieved when it zipped up without any trouble, and studied myself in the full-length mirror on my closet door. The dress hovered perfectly between risque and classy. The front had me decently well-covered, with a respectable halter-top neckline that hid my cleavage. The back, however, was practically non-existent, and cool air brushed my sky from neck to waist. The material was silky and loose, but clung to my breasts and hips in a way that I knew would drive poor Parker mad.

I’d taken my time, in the shower, to shave everything so I had to scramble to finish getting ready. I twisted my curls into a hasty but elegant up-do, threw on some lipstick and eye makeup, and hastened to my dresser, pulling open my jewelry box and rifling through it for earrings.

“You about ready, Aly?” Parker yelled from downstairs as I shoved earrings around, wishing I’d taken the time to organize the box better. The tangled up pile of earrings didn’t seem to contain a single matching pair.

“Five minutes!” I yelled, battling back resurging annoyance. If only he’d given me more forewarning...

I found a single gold hoop and pulled it out, continuing to dig through the box in search of its partner. My fingers pushed aside a large, faux-gold, leaf-shaped earring and my breath caught in my throat.

Mushed into the corner of the velvet-lined box were two small silver studs. I wore earrings so rarely, anymore, I had forgotten I even had them. Fingers trembling, I reached into the box and pulled them out, staring at the glittering silver stars pinched between my thumb and forefinger.

It was like looking into his eyes. Staring at those stupid, cheap studs picked me up and threw me back into the past. Physically, I stood in my bedroom. Spiritually, I plummeted through long, languid summer nights spent creeping my way into adulthood. I relived the feel of hands brushing over me with reverent care, opening me up to everything my body and soul could offer me. I saw my childhood dreams. I loved so powerfully I felt it physically.

“Where did you go, Nate?” I whispered at the earrings, shaking my head. Once again, old doubts began to pry at the boards I’d nailed over the windows of my heart. Once again, I found myself struggling to reconcile my first love with a man who cheated and murdered and fought. Once again, I came up empty.

Suddenly furious, I tightened my grip on the earrings and turned to the trash can in the corner of my room. I stomped over to it and stood with my hand poised over it. All I had to do was drop them in. Hell, I could pull out the letters and other mementoes and drop those in too. I could take the trash out as I left for my date with Parker. My hand trembled as I wared with myself.

“Fucking let it go,” I hissed to myself between my teeth. “It’s not worth it.”

But in the end, I couldn’t. Instead, I turned, hauled back, and let the earrings fly across my room in a flash of frustration at my own weakness and the strength of Nate’s memory. I heard the delicate tick as the earrings bounced off the wall, and prayed they would land somewhere that the vacuum would find them. That way I could dispose of them without realizing what was happening. I’d just vacuum them up and throw away the vacuum bag, never the wiser.

I could give classes on the fine art of avoidance and procrastination.

With a sigh, I turned back to the jewelry box and dug through it until I found the gold hoop I was looking for. I slipped the earrings on, dug a pair of high red heels out of my closet, and gave myself one last check in the mirror.

I looked good. Parker would be happy. Hopefully I would be too.

* * *

The restaurant he’d chosen was a french place on the far side of town. Parker was almost comically gentlemanly. He raced out of the car the second he parked and opened my door. He claimed the street-side of the sidewalk as we walked the two blocks from the parking garage to the restaurant. He opened the door for me and ushered me through with a hand on the small of my back. He raced ahead of me as we approached our table and pulled out my chair.

It was funny, but I tried not to laugh, because none of it was done in jest. He seemed genuinely wrapped up in the propriety of the evening. When the somalie offered us wine, he went through all the steps of sampling with a furrowed brow and a look of intense concentration on his boyishly handsome face. I had a feeling he’d googled this process sometime in the last couple days and was struggling to remember the rules.

“You’re adorable,” I said, reaching across the table and clasping his hand in mine as the somalie walked away, leaving us with two perfectly-poured glasses of wine. Part of me wanted to tell Parker not to worry about the fancy stuff. I’d have been fine if the somalie had brought a box of Franzia out and opened the spigot over our glasses. Wine was wine.

“Gee, thanks. What every guy wants to hear,” he responded sarcastically, but his fingers tightened around mine.

“So what’s the occasion?” I asked, pulling my hand free and picking up the menu. To the best of my knowledge, we weren’t celebrating an anniversary. We’d already passed our one year. I’d flown up to Boston for it.

“What? A man can’t take his woman out to a fancy restaurant just because he loves her?”

“Uh...” I glanced up from the menu, leaning forward so I could whisper. “Not if the meals cost thirty bucks a plate. Parker, what the hell?

He leaned back in his seat, some of the tension bleeding out of him.

“You know I can afford it, Aly,” he said. He could. Parker might be a student, but his parents owned half the real-estate in Maine. He was royalty, and I was the peasant girl he’d picked to be his princess.

I was living a fairy tale.

That’s what people must have thought when the waiter brought our deserts an hour later, complete with two flutes of sparkling champagne. Like something from a movie, they must have thought when I raised mine for a sip and gasped when I caught sight of what was waiting at the bottom. What a perfect moment, they probably whispered to each other when I fished the ring out and looked up to find Parker on one knee beside me.

“Aly,” he said, tears rising in his eyes as he reached out and gently plucked the ring from my numb fingers. The entire restaurant had gone silent, smiles bright on the faces of our fellow patrons. The wait staff had retreated politely, standing beside the doors to the kitchen. They didn’t look as delighted as the people they were serving. They just looked kind of bored. They must have seen such shows all the time.

“Aly, I love you,” Parker continued, pulling my attention back to him. He’d slipped the ring in his pocket and was holding both my hands between his. The fingers of my right were a little sticky from fishing the ring out of the champagne. I don’t think he noticed.

“Since the moment I met you, I knew you were the girl for me,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “Every bad day is more bearable when we’re together. Every adventure is more thrilling with you by my side. Every view is more magnificent with you blocking it.” A couple people chuckled at that. I couldn’t breathe enough to laugh. I couldn’t think enough to find it funny. “I want to spend the rest of my life seeing the world with you by my side. Will you please, please, make me the luckiest man on the planet?”

How could I say no? I wanted to, but how could I do it? After all, the only reason I had any reservations was a washed up ex-con who had, earlier in the day, vowed never to speak to me again. That wasn’t enough of a reason. So what choice did I have but to ignore my wailing heart and listen to logic.

“Okay,” I whispered, too shocked to dredge up more enthusiasm. The rest of my life. The rest of my life with this handsome, adventurous, good-natured, successful man? The rest of my life.

“I’d have preferred an ’Oh my God, of course, my love,’” Parker quipped, slipping the ring onto my finger. “But I’ll take it.”

The room erupted into applause and Parker pulled me to my feet, bending me back over his arm with a flourish, kissing me deeply.

The rest of my life. There were worse fates than being kissed like that until death came to fetch me.

Right?

* * *

Parker had the entire night planned. Apparently he hadn’t entertained even a fleeting doubt that I would say yes. We finished our dessert slowly. I was shaky and nauseous. Parker was practically vibrating with excitement. We didn’t have much chance to talk, with all the happy couples who came to congratulate us.

After Parker paid the bill, we walked back to the car.

“Are you okay, Aly?” he asked as we pulled out onto the road. “You’re very quiet.”

“I’m just a little shocked,” I said, praying he couldn’t hear the truth in my voice.

“Happy shocked, though,” Parker said, grinning at me from the driver’s side.

“Of course,” I lied. “Happy shocked.”

“I hope you’re ready for a party,” he said, still grinning. “I texted Gemma to tell her we’re on her way.”

“On our way where?” I asked, trying like hell not to project my dread. I just wanted to go home and process.

“The party, obviously,” Parker exclaimed, reaching across and taking my left hand, running his thumb over the ring. I stared down at our hands. The ring fit perfectly, of course. The platinum band was crusted with tiny diamonds, and the stone set into the top was almost obscene in its size and perfection.

“You’re a lucky girl,” one older woman had said to me at the restaurant, as her husband shook Parker’s hand.

I’m a lucky girl, I told myself.

“What party?” I asked.

“Well, all your friends wanted to congratulate you!” Parker said. “Gemma organized it. They’re meeting us at a bar downtown.”

In all honesty, a crowded bar and happy friends were the last thing I wanted. If I had to be with anyone, I’d have liked to at least just be with Parker. I wanted to take him home and have him fuck me. Remind me that there was still something in the world that isn’t complicated.

Instead, I smiled and said it sounded great and tell myself to stop overthinking everything.

The bar Gemma chose wasn’t anything special. I’d never even been there before. It sits comfortably between hole-in-the-wall and uptown-chic. That’s how I know Gemma chose the place. If Parker had picked it there’d be a VIP corner and aerial acrobats dangling from the ceiling or something.

My small group of friends was gathered at a table in the corner. I’m not necessarily antisocial, but I don’t make a point of surrounding myself with friends. I like to keep it to a handful so I can actually be a friend to them all. I’d rather have five true friends than five hundred acquaintances.

As such, there were only six people at the table. Gemma and Lacey, obviously. Paula another grad student in the physics department. Paula had a mousey appearance-- all dowdy, conservative clothing and unkempt hair-- and she was quiet as all hell. Get her talking, though, and she’d have you rolling at her wry observations and sarcastic quips.

Then there was Ian, a chemistry department grad student. Ian was a beautiful example of how misleading some stereotypes can be. He was a sloppy mess of a human being. His wardrobe consisted entirely of stained t-shirts and frayed jeans, his hair looked like he cut it himself without a mirror, his beard crawled down his neck, and he spent all his free time eating pizza, drinking beer, and screaming obscenities at whatever football game happened to be playing.

Ian was also just about as gay as the day is long.

Ian’s boyfriend, Mark, was also there. Mark and I had hit it off talking about literature at a double-date a few months back. If Ian was a quiet, masculine kind of gay, then Mark was his flaming polar opposite. They’d been together for three years and I didn’t have any doubt they’d be together forever. That was a good thing. Ian needed someone to force vegetables on him every once in a while.

The sixth member of our small engagement party was Minnie. She cut my hair my first week back in town and we immediately formed an unexpected friendship. Unlike the rest of my classmates, who had largely spurned me since my return to town, Minnie embraced me. Although we hardly spoke a word in high school, she said I was her hero for my graduation speech. Minnie was married to a banker and had two little girls, 3 and 5.

The second we walked in the door, I was engulfed in hugs and congratulations. Gemma shoved a rum and coke into my hand and ushered Parker and I to the table while Ian went to the bar for a few more pitchers of beer.

My friends were already well on their way to drunk when we arrived and Parker and I caught up pretty quickly. Surrounded by familiar people and their gleeful exuberance, I began to relax. I loved Parker. We’d have a good life together. Everything was going to be okay.

Eight o’clock found me tipsy, showing off my ring to my friends while Parker sat beside me, his arm draped posessively over my shoulder.

Nine o’clock found me safely drunk, dancing poorly, sandwiched between Minnie and Mark, to some techno number with a heavy bass line. My toes had long since stopped aching from the wretched heels. Or maybe I was too drunk to feel the pain.

10 o’clock brought the whole thing crashing down.

At 10, I stumbled to the bar to refresh our drinks. Mark and Ian were in a corner making out. Paula and Lacey had their heads together, people watching and sharing their mutual love of dry sarcasm. Gemma and Minnie were grilling Parker, already wrapped up in wedding preparations.

Nobody noticed when I grabbed our two pitchers and stumbled off to the bar. It was packed, and I had to squeeze my way between two drunk college kids who were screaming at the hockey game on the flatscreen above them.

I was distracted by the hockey game, myself. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize the bartender until it was too late. As he turned towards me, our eyes met and I stumbled a little, bumping into the guy to my right.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, but he didn’t seem to notice.

Nate’s jaw clenched, his hand tightening around the rag in his hand. His eyes broke from mine, and he looked around. The second bartender was pouring five rounds of a complicated-looking drink with the frazzled intensity of an old pro. Despite her skill, she’d be tied up for a while.

There was nobody else to serve me.

“What can I get for you?” he asked, his voice perfectly, carefully wooden as he took the pitchers from my hands.

“Stella,” I answered, trying not to slur. Or cry.

He nodded, topping off the pitchers and bringing them back. I reached out to take them, and his eyes landed on my left hand. My gaze followed his and I saw the ring I had forgotten was on my finger. I looked up and watched his eyes search the crowded room before landing on Parker. Then they passed once more over the ring before coming to rest on my face.

“Do you have a tab open, ma’am?”

Ma’am.

“Uh...” I cleared my throat. “It’s under... it’s under the name O’Donohue.”

He nodded, and I watched him turn to the register, punching my order into the touch-screen. I didn’t need to stay. I had my drinks. He had my payment information. Why wouldn’t my damned feet move?

He didn’t bat an eye when he turned around and found me still standing there, sandwiched between two sweaty drunk men, staring at him like he owed me something.

“You’re good to go,” he said, jabbing a thumb at the register like that was what I’d been waiting for. Still, I couldn’t move. Even after he left me alone and moved on to the next customer, it took me a solid thirty seconds to take my pitchers and trudge back to the table.

My night was effectively ruined. I swear I tried. I tried to play darts and laugh with Ian. I tried to slow dance with my fiance. I tried to giggle and make wedding plans with Gemma.

But every time I forced myself back to what mattered, my foolish eyes found their way back to the bar. Nate hadn’t looked at me once. I hadn’t caught him so much as glancing my way, and I’d been staring at him nonstop since I’d fetched my drinks. He was keeping to the bargain.

There was something off about him, though. It was little things that clued me in. Things I wouldn’t even have noticed if I didn’t know him so frustratingly well. He was the picture of professionalism, busily darting about behind the bar, mixing drinks, tallying up tabs. His mouth was pressed into that infuriating, expressionless line.

He was living, breathing granite. Except for the slight curve of his shoulders, like something heavy was pressing down on him. And the careful emptiness in his eyes that I knew meant something powerful was raging beneath the surface. And the way he bowed his head and pulled in a deep breath every time he turned his back to the room to use the register.

For many years, my anger towards him had been a chore. It was something I talked myself into to smother the hurt and the sorrow and the loneliness. I hate him, I’d lie to myself to counter the painful truth-- that I missed him. He’s a worthless asshole, I’d recite to drown out the pressing doubts that had me wondering if maybe I just wasn’t enough.

That evening, though? That evening, rage came natural and there’s a delightful irony in the fact that it wasn’t his infidelity, his violence, or his dishonesty that finally made me snap. It was his sadness that finally taught me to hate him.

I was on my feet and staggering toward the bar before I knew what was happening. Fire burned in my chest, heating my face and making my hands and voice tremble as I stalked up to the bar, wedged myself between two half-drunk sorority girls, and confronted him.

“You don’t get to do this,” I snarled, gripping the edge of the bar and leaning forward.

“Do what?” he asked without looking at me, setting two fresh long-necks in front of the girls to either side of me. They giggled and wound hair around their fingers, somehow oblivious to the Shakespearean drama playing out before them. “I’m trying to tend the bar, ma’am.”

“Don’t call me that,” I spat.

“I’m trying to tend the bar, Alexandra,” he corrected evenly, turning his back to punch the girls’ orders into the register.

“You’re being such an asshole,” I breathed, smacking the bar-top with my hand as he turned back around. “I’m happy, Nate. Why is that such a fucking offense to you? Why can’t I go three days without you pushing your way back into my life?”

“Woah,” said one of the sorority girls, finally catching on to what she was witnessing.

“Drama,” said the other, laughing just a decibel too loud.

“Monica, I need you to cover for me. Bathroom break,” Nate said, turning to the other bartender. She huffed and shook her head in frustration but didn’t argue, and I followed as he strode to the end of the bar, pushing through the swinging gate. As soon as the bar was no longer between us, he grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the hallway leading to the bathrooms.

“You need to calm the fuck down,” he snapped as soon as we were away from the worst of the noise. “Your fiance is here and you’re drunk as shit. I’m not looking to get in a fight. I haven’t said a word to you beyond asking for your drink. What the hell is your problem?”

“You’re sad!” I exclaimed, shoving him back, hoping he would stagger into the wall behind him. He barely budged. “You don’t get to be sad! You don’t get to stand there and brood and make me feel guilty for being happy. You ruined us, not me. You dragged me through the dirt. You broke the trust. You aren’t the goddamned victim here, Nate. I am.”

His eyes widened in disbelief and he ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up on end. When he dropped the hand to his side, his head bowed as well, and he shook it slowly before looking up and to the side, focusing on the crowded room beyond the hallway.

“This is ridiculous,” he said, his voice weary and taut with repressed emotion. “If you weren’t drunk you wouldn’t even be talking to me. Go back to your party. I’ll make sure Monica handles your drinks. Just please don’t talk to me again. Your man might try to start something that I have to finish, and I don’t want to go back to prison.”

There he went, again. Making me feel like the fucking bad guy. “All I ever did was love you.”

“And all I ever do is love you,” he blurted, taking a step toward me. I pressed my back against the wall, shrinking. “It isn’t past tense for me, Alex, and if you’d taken just five minutes to listen--” he broke off. He was towering over me, his right hand raised and clenched into a fist. He glanced at my face, and at his hand, before lowering his arms to his sides and shaking his head. When he went on talking, the spurt of fire that had possessed him was gone. “Forget it.”

“It’s been six years, Nate!” I slurred, shoving him back again. This time he stepped away, giving me more space. “We’re done. I gave you a second chance. I gave you twenty second chances and you wasted them all. I’m not gonna give you another.”

“I didn’t ask for another.”

“Then why are you so sad?”

“I’m not sad, Alex,” he hissed at me. “I don’t give a flying fuck what you do with your life, or who you do it with. I’m just trying to tend the fucking bar.”

“Glad to know you’re still a lying bastard.”

“Glad to know you’re still a stubborn bitch.”

It took my sluggish, pickled brain a second to recognize the correlation between the sting in my palm, the sharp smacking sound echoing through my consciousness, and the look of bewilderment on Nate’s face. Just like that, the anger was gone. Hell, the whole bar was gone, and I was 17 again, standing in the parking lot of a furniture store, confused and hurt and trying to make him understand that I would never, ever hit him.

I remember how much it stung to see the disbelief in his eyes when I made him that promise. In retrospect, that sting was nothing compared to my aching palm, and it seemed an abject trifle next to the sobering realization that I’d proven him right. Seven years on, with so much between us, and I’d finally resolved that unspoken disagreement between us.

He seemed to remember it, too. The wide-eyed shock on his face gave way, almost instantly, to a weary, disillusioned satisfaction. The corner of his mouth ticked up in a smile, belying the heavy acceptance in his eyes.

“I think that’s the first argument you’ve ever let me win, Al,” he said evenly, looking away and studying the chaos of the bar. When he turned back to me his face was completely blank. No smile. No sadness. Nothing. It chilled me to the bone, and I looked down at my feet to avoid the wrenching intensity of the nothingness.

“Nate, I--” I looked up.

He was gone.

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